Seyfarth Synopsis: The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals recently provided several reminders to employers regarding their obligations under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), in vacating summary judgment for the employer in Ramji v. Hospital Housekeeping Systems, Inc., Case No. 19-13461 (11th Cir. April 6, 2021).

First, an employer cannot get around its FMLA obligations by offering workers’ compensation benefits to the employee. Second, employers must provide notice to the employee of their rights and responsibilities under the Act within five days of receiving information that the employee may qualify for leave. And third, an employer cannot force an employee to take a light duty position in lieu of FMLA leave.

Factual Background

The plaintiff in Ramji injured her knee when working. Defendant employer handled the injury as a workers’ compensation claim, and did not provide her with any notice that she may be eligible for FMLA leave. After taking a few days off work, Plaintiff was given a temporary light duty assignment while continuing her recovery. Not long thereafter, she received medical clearance to go back to regular duty.

However, before allowing her to go back to regular duty, Defendant required her to pass an essential functions test. The test was primarily made up of physical activities, such as deep squats and knee bends. While performing the test, Plaintiff began to experience pain in her knee, and was not able to finish all required exercises. As a result, she failed the essential functions test, and she was discharged. Defendant never advised Plaintiff of her rights under the FMLA or provide her with the opportunity to take 12 weeks of leave to care for her knee injury before terminating her employment.

Plaintiff subsequently filed suit, alleging interference with her FMLA rights. The district court granted summary judgment to Defendant. On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit reversed, and remanded the case for trial. The Court’s opinion provides several important reminders to employers regarding their FMLA obligations, including the following:

Employer Takeaways

  1. Ensure compliance with notice obligations

Where an employee provides notice to the employer that they are suffering from a serious health condition and may require continuing treatment from a health care provider, the employer must provide the employee with notice of their FMLA rights. The employee’s burden is not onerous: the employee need not mention the FMLA to meet her notice obligation. Rather, she must only provide enough information to allow the employer to understand that she may qualify for FMLA protections.

Once the employer has enough information to understand that the employee may qualify for FMLA leave, the employer has five days to provide the employee with notice of both her eligibility for FMLA leave and her rights and responsibilities under the FMLA. More specifically, the notice must advise the employee 1) that any leave may be counted against her annual FMLA leave entitlement; 2) of her rights to substitute paid leave for unpaid leave (if applicable); and 3) that she has the right to maintain benefits during FMLA leave, and that she can be restored to the same or an equivalent role when returning from FMLA leave.

  1. Workers compensation benefits are not a substitute for FMLA leave

An employer cannot get around its FMLA obligations by offering workers compensation benefits to an injured employee. The two statutory schemes may overlap, but complying with one set of obligations does not relieve the employer of complying with the other as well. (And, the employer may have a third set of obligations under the Americans With Disabilities Act.) Indeed, the FMLA regulations make clear that a workers’ compensation absence and FMLA leave may run concurrently. So here, even though Defendant provided Plaintiff with workers’ compensation benefits and several days off from work, it was still required to fulfill its obligations under the FMLA, which it did not do.

  1. Employees cannot be required to take light duty work instead of FMLA leave

Where an employee is entitled to FMLA leave, the employer may not require the employee to take light duty work instead of going on FMLA leave. Certainly, the employer is free to offer the employee a light duty position, but the employee need not accept that offer. She can choose to remain on FMLA leave instead until either she can return to the same or an equivalent role, or until her 12-week FMLA leave entitlement is exhausted.

Conclusion

This decision is yet another reminder that employers must take great care to comply with their FMLA obligations. Where an employer suspects an employee may require FMLA leave, the employer must timely inform the employee of her eligibility for FMLA leave, as well as her rights and responsibilities under the Act. And providing other benefits to the employee, like workers compensation benefits, does not relieve an employer of their obligations under the FMLA.